On Monday, October 19th, the Yes Men, a group of artist/political activists, set up a mock website that looked like the Chamber of Commerce’s, and held a mock press conference where they announced that the Chamber was shifting its opposition to serious efforts to address global warming. Major news sources were fooled into reporting the story.

In response, the Chamber tried to have the mock site taken down by sending a Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) takedown notice to the site’s upstream provider, Hurricane Electric. The notice claimed that the site constituted copyright infringement and demanded that it be shut down immediately and that the creator’s service be canceled. Hurricane Electric, who was hosting The Yes Men through May First / People Link, a 400-member-strong organization with a strong commitment to protecting free speech, immediately pulled the plug. May First / People Link immediately “mirrored” the site, and then negotiated with Hurricane Electric to restore service to their other members.

The Chamber of Commerce is now suing the Yes Men for trademark infringement, charging that their action was “nothing less than commercial identity theft masquerading as social activism.” The Chamber is charging the Yes Men with  “misappropriation of our valuable intellectual property” and claims that this was done to promote the new Yes Men movie, The Yes Men Fix The World.

It is not hard, however, to ascertain that the Yes Men’s prime goal was to provoke a vibrant public debate about the Chamber’s political positions by looking at the history of similar hoaxes organized by the group that have drawn public attention to pressing political issues. Here are some highlights:

  • In 2007 the Yes Men made an announcement that Exxon Mobil plans to turn billions of climate-change victims into a brand-new fuel called Vivoleum. (Broadview Networks, the Yes Men’s upstream internet service provider shut down Vivoleum.com, the Yes Men’s spoof website, and cut off the Yes Men’s email service. They also made the Yes Men remove all mention of Exxon from TheYesMen.org before they’d restore the group’s email service.)
  • In 2002 the Yes Men created a parody site resembling that of Dow Chemical launching a critique of the corporation for placing profits above reparations for the 1984 lethal gas leak in Bhopal, India. (After receiving legal threats from the Dow Chemical, the Internet access provider NTT/Verio declared it would terminate its contract with the Thing.net which hosted the Yes Men)

The Yes Men call what they do “identity correction” – by impersonating corporate leaders and spokesmen they draw attention to the ethics of large corporations and their role in the world at large. This work falls well within the tradition of social parody and satire and succeeds, to a large extent, thanks to the efforts made by corporations to silence their critics.

The suit filed by the Chamber of Commerce may be a good thing – while previously Yes Men websites have been censored by private internet service providers preempting any First Amendment discussion, the current case should make it clear that political commentary is protected no matter whether it appears as a screed in a newspaper or takes the form of a satirical art prank. Neither corporations nor public officials should be immune from public scrutiny and ridicule – on the contrary, the health of democracy depends on a lively culture of critical inquiry into political and corporate practices.